Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail 2019 (2018)
Anyone with a certain religious upbringing, be it Catholic or Baptist for example, will know how deeply a sense of guilt can be ingrained, and how much the gleeful reminder by elders God is watching you! may reverberate down the years. Add to that the concepts behind complicity theory, which postulates that in dehumanising an out-group one shares the guilt of what is done to them by others from the in-group, and one can imagine the febrile atmosphere that Sarah Perry conjures up in this haunting — in all senses of the word — novel.
Helen Franklin, 42, is working in Prague, and we meet her in the winter of 2016 as she comes to understand what is agitating her friend Karel Pražan. Already trying to escape an as yet unknown transgression in her past, she learns from the manuscripts Karel shows her of the figure of Melmoth, Melmotka, or Melmat, a woman who becomes the personification of all that dogs Helen’s current empty existence.
Through the streets of the Czech capital, through Brentwood, Manila, Heathrow, Cairo and the Black Sea we follow the trail of this mysterious woman who witnesses man’s inhumanity to man via those rendered complicit by association. Will Helen, punishing her body with anorexia, come to redeem herself, or will she submit to despair?
This is such a powerful and finely wrought work. Slow and ponderous at times, so that the reader may start to lose patience, the narrative gradually unfolds to reveal the flawed individuals who have been present at great historical unjustices such as the treatment of Germans in wartime Czechia and the murder of Jews in Europe, the burning of heretics in Tudor Essex and the persecution and genocide of Armenians in Turkey.
In counterpoint to these we have personal stories: Karel’s attempt to assuage guilt by working against deportations in Britain; the true identities of siblings Freddy and Franz Bayer, and of brothers Hassan and the man known as Nameless; the burden carried by Josef Hoffman, by Sir David Ellerby, by Helen Franklin; and the seemingly clear consciences of people like Karel’s lover Thea, and Albína Horáková, and the enigmatic Adaya.
Wandering through all these lives and stories is the woman known as Melmoth, seen as a shadow, a patch of mist or a cloud of flies, sometimes short and at other times impossibly tall, her hair and black robes floating around her as though in a light breeze or underwater, her feet cut and bleeding from her travels. Small matter it is that Melmoth is an English surname said to be derived from a lost village, or that Charles Maturin’s title character in Melmoth the Wanderer was male; Perry has created a new folkloric figure, less like Nemesis and more like how a guilty conscience might appear if made human.
Perry knows that words and names are significant — for instance Karel Pražan personifies Prague, Karel after the 14th-century King Charles IV and Pražan meaning a citizen of the Czech city. Albína takes her surname from a wartime resistance fighter, another individual’s name comes from the Hebrew for ‘witness of God’, and so on. They all bear testament to each person’s responsibility not be be wilfully blind or to add to the suffering of others.
Dvořák’s opera Rusalka is, as it were, a play within the play that is the novel, and it’s nigh impossible not to see its plot as a partial commentary on Perry’s story, especially the perils that may arise from being unfaithful to a loved one. But it is an aspect of the text that nearly everything presented is relevant, has significance, whether it concerns food, clothing, weather, buildings, or music — even Prague’s jackdaws have dramatic and etymological significance. And what a text it is: beautiful and beguiling but also painful and distressing, emphasising poetic language over mere prose, and compassion over religiosity. In Melmoth the author has demonstrated what makes a novel truly great, especially one like this told by a memorable and unique narrator.